Ich bin ein Berliner
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There was a time when anywhere in Europe was comfortable. Even a country I’d never been to before was snug and peaceful because I had lived on the continent long enough to know how it breathed. I could feel the regular beat of its pulse beneath the city streets. I understood its rhythms.
When I stepped off the plane and onto German soil a week ago, it had been nearly a decade since I’d last set foot in Europe. The continent lost its ability to "culture shock" me long ago, but this time around, it did rattle my comfort zone. I’ll admit to a certain degree of apprehension. Yet I embraced the feeling, for it signaled something magical was about to break through.
Does familiarity return instinctively, like riding a bicycle after many years without one? Yes. And all it takes is something as simple as a cappuccino and a pastry in a small, corner café to rewind the clock and reorient the equilibrium.
I spent several days in Berlin while touring Germany, Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic a decade ago. I remembered it as a city skyline dominated by cranes; the largest construction site in Europe.
Not much has changed.
All in all, Berlin is something of an ugly city. It has a character unique in mainland Europe, borne out of its 20th century history — an era of destruction and neglect. Its ugliness — utilitarian modernism, really — points both to the American bombs that shattered its splendor during World War II and the malevolent resistance to anything beautiful under Communism that ensured the demolition of much of what remained.
Berlin exists in the presences of absence.
I decided to avoid most of the places I’d been before. Besides, on that trip, primarily a sightseeing exercise, I’d neglected the city’s phenomenal museums, most of which are situated in the old DDR, where we were staying. My wife was here for business and while she worked, I traipsed from one museum to another (a half dozen in all), trying to keep dry and warm amidst a daily barrage of cold, pelting rain and snow.
I stood dumbstruck in the Pergamon, dwarfed by the sweep of the Roman Pergamon Altar and the size of the ancient Ishtar Gate of Babylon, all marvels I had studied in college art history classes.
The Altes Museum housed Greek and Egyptian treasures, such as the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti.
At the Alte Nationalgalerie, I gave in to my luxurious addiction of German Romanticism, seeking out one of my favorite artists, Caspar David Friedrich. Friedrich’s work, full of ruined churches and tiny, isolated individuals set amongst massive landscapes, is steeped in loneliness, remoteness and desolation.
I tracked down works by another of my favorite artists, the Italian Sandro Botticelli (has anyone ever painted more beautiful women?), at the Gemäldegalerie where I also enjoyed Rembrandt, Vermeer and a host of other Dutch artists.
The Jewish experience weighed heavily on my mind throughout the trip. I visited the Neue Synagoge, which would have been destroyed during Hitler’s infamous Kristallnacht but for the bravery of the local police chief who actually drove the SS out at gunpoint.
Two additional, powerful sites did not exist when I was last here. The first was The Jewish Museum, whose architecture has as much to say about the Jewish experience as the items it holds. Shaped like a shattered Star of David, it is full of hallways that go nowhere, both massive and infinitesimal voids, support beams that appear to have crashed through the superstructure, and terrific gashes in the metallic skin.
The Holocaust Memorial, with a small but powerful subterranean museum, is an uneven sea of 2,711 alternating sized cement blocks which, while intentionally designed without symbolism, nonetheless have the effect of producing a feeling of agitation and upheaval.
I also found myself spending a lot of time at the magnificent Berliner Dom, a church I’d loved on the outside my first visit, but never managed to get inside.
My evenings were spent with Stephanie and her compatriots from the British Council’s Transatlantic Network 2020 program, designed to foster better relations between Europe and the U.S. An eclectic group of young movers and shakers from around the world, they were a delight to get to know and spend time with.
After the better part of a week in Berlin, Stephanie's obligations ended, and rather than head straight home, we boarded a train for Wilhelmshaven, the small, North Sea coastal town that was once a major U-Boat hub. It was here that Stephanie stayed when she lived in Germany shortly before we were married. And it was here that I finally met Wolf and Karin, her lovely guest family, and their grown children.
I’ve heard my wife speak plenty of German (which I do not speak), but not in this sort of context and certainly not to this degree. I was reminded somewhat of accompanying my mother and grandparents to Africa and standing by in awe as an African dialect I’ve never heard before poured from their mouths.
We also stopped in Bremen, a charming medieval town known as the site of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, “The Bremen Town-Musicians,” and one of Stephanie’s favorite retreats.
My previous time in Germany, I flew in to Berlin and flew out of Koln. This time was no different. Koln was another city my wife lived in and it also happened to be where we met up with her mother and twin sister, here on a completely unrelated vacation. (If you think that’s weird, this weekend they are meeting up with Stephanie’s older sister, also there on an independently planned trip! Talk about serendipity!)
Though I had spend quite a bit of time at the Koln Cathedral the last time I was here, you don’t skip something this magnificent, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. The cathedral is impossibly large. It staggers the imagination to take it all in. And yet, personally, my favorite visit in Koln was not the cathedral, but a tour of the ancient Roman churches (there are a dozen in all), specifically Grosse St. Martin. Mixing fairytale aesthetics with spartan Benedictine ornamentation, the church seemed to be a time machine. I had to but close my eyes and I was transported away. There is something about the Benedictines. Their trappings move me in ways I find hard to describe. One of my favorite places on the planet is next door in Austria, the Benedictine Melk Abbey.
We met up with some of Stephanie’s friends while in Koln, members of the same exchange program in which she had participated all those years ago. Kamila and Suzanna simply stayed in Germany when the program ended. Suzanna married a German, Oliver, though, the nights we were there, they were in the middle of filling out the reams of paperwork necessary to allow Oliver to move to the United States. We all had quite a laugh as Suzanna read aloud the questions from one of the forms: “Are you now or have you ever been a terrorist? Please know that an answer in the affirmative will disqualify you from entry into the United States of America.”
Sometimes I have to stand back and examine the age in which I live through the eyes of the ancients. To wake up in Germany but lay my head down later that same day in Washington D.C. is a marvel of modern transportation that still boggles my mind, no matter how many times I experience it.
I’ve wanted to return to Europe -- to live there again -- ever since I moved back to the United States. I still do. So does Stephanie. Someday we'll return on a more permanent basis. Until then, we have New York City. Manhattan alone blunted those feelings, gave us some respite, and, like Europe, calls to us now that we have also left it behind.
Someday. Someday to you both. Be patient just a little while longer.